‘I’m so sick of this happening’: Advocate calls for national fire strategy

By Amanda Rabski-McColl
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A Peawanuck woman is calling for a national Indigenous fire strategy after another deadly house fire in her home community.

After a Feb. 1 house fire in Peawanuck killed two people and injured three more, the need for a national Indigenous fire strategy has come into sharp focus once again for families in the community. The Nishnawbe Aski Police Service is investigating the cause of last week’s fire.

“Why is it that members of our community have to die for (the government) to do something?” questioned Joyce Hunter, a Weenusk First Nation member who lost a family member in the recent fire.

She is also related to the 10-year-old girl who died almost a year ago to the day in another house fire in Peawanuck.

Hunter wants to see a well-funded, resourced plan across the country to prevent and safely fight fires.

“There have been so many times where fires have happened in my family, in my community, but in other communities as well,” said Hunter. “It’s something that, as a family member, I’ve been so affected by, and my community as well.”

Indigenous Service Canada has a national First Nations fire strategy on its website, but Hunter said the picture on the ground is much different.

“Largely, it’s something that’s on paper, but if you actually look around at First Nations across the country, a national fire strategy isn’t in place. It’s not properly resourced,” said Hunter. “It puts so many lives at risk.”

Peawanuck is located about 35 kilometres south of Hudson Bay.

While the community received funding for a new fire truck in 2022, there is no fire hall to house the truck.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s (NAN) statement made on Feb. 4 said that the truck is not yet operational.

“We are very concerned to hear learn that federal funding was approved in 2022 for a new fire truck, but it is still not operational in the community,” said NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler in the statement.

In an email to TimminsToday, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) director of communications Simon Ross said work is moving forward on the fire hall.

“We are supporting the construction of a new fire hall, to make sure that the community has all the tools it needs. As of now, the community has almost completed the design of the new building and materials are being shipped in so that the construction can begin shortly,” said Ross.

Hunter also said many of the homes in the community are heated with wood stoves.

Along with fire trucks and halls, she wants to see a fire brigade, with training and appropriate equipment.

Hunter said that things like building codes, inspectors, and education need to be as easily accessible in remote communities as they are in bigger centres.

“You see signage saying check your smoke alarms, make sure you have a working carbon monoxide detector, and those are just absent in First Nations,” said Hunter. “Prevention and education are just as important as those physical things.”

Every time another fire happens, it brings up frustration and sadness again, said Hunter.

“I’m so sick of this happening,” she said.

Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus has been pushing for more emergency services. Days before last week’s deadly fire, he stood in the House of Commons talking about the need for fire safety in Treaty 9 communities. 

“It’s like nickel and diming services. People in the community were concerned … you need inspections for chimney, for electrical, standard fire safety and they don’t have any resources because they don’t have money for a fire chief and this is the situation in many of the communities right now,” he told TimminsToday last week. 

NAN and Mushkegowuk Council are both sending support to the community.

“This tragedy highlights the ever-present danger of fire, especially in remote First Nations, which are at unnecessary risk due to the chronic lack of fire-firefighting, fire prevention, and emergency services. We are very concerned to hear learn that federal funding was approved in 2022 for a new fire truck, but it is still not operational in the community,” said Fiddler in the Feb. 4 statement.

“We have lost far too many members to house fires and other tragedies that may have been preventable had the proper resources been available. Our leaders are frustrated that these tragedies continue to happen despite our best efforts to secure the resources they so desperately need.

Mushkegowuk Council is also sending support through its emergency management department.

“It is a sad time, and the community is grieving this loss,” said Mushkegowuk Council’s executive director Vern Cheechoo.

Hunter hopes that those who can help and who can speak up about the needs of First Nations communities will do so.

“There’s still so much work to be done,” she said.

Anyone wanting to donate to those affected in the community can contact Weenusk First Nation at 705-473-2554